Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Price Is Wrong

When you travel, you spend money.

There’s no way around it. Hotels, transportation, meals … you’ve got to shell it out to make it happen.

So it’s no surprise that smart tourists look for bargains. You can save a few dollars, euros, or riyals by watching the currency markets and cost-of-living indices. Or you can just splurge—and the latest survey of the world’s most expensive cities from Mercer Consulting, as reported on, will help you do just that.

The highest-cost city is Moscow, which explains why many travelers aren’t rushin’ to go there.

The reigning four-year price champion, Tokyo—this year, at least, capital of the Land of the Rising Dollar—fell to number three, behind South Korea’s Seoul.

Places four through nine hold no huge surprises: Hong Kong, London, Osaka, Geneva, Copenhagen, Zurich. You’ll find each of these cities more costly than New York, which comes in tied with Oslo at number ten.

Keep these tips in mind for your upcoming voyages:

— Spend more time in the southern hemisphere, where we find many of the least expensive cities but few of the most costly ones.

— Travelers to East Asia are better off overnighting in Chinese cities than in Japanese ones.

— When in Europe, stay longer in Leipzig and Prague than in Berlin and Kiev.

— Latin America offers some bargains, including the least expensive location in the 144-city survey: Paraguay’s Asuncion.

And when in the United States, beware the priciest cities: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. And definitely avoid Toledo.

That has nothing to do with prices. I just don’t like Toledo.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Dubious Fairy Tales

The past couple of years have undermined the public’s faith in writers.

The Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times confirmed what most of us always believed—that reporters sometimes make up quotes … and even entire interviews. Then we struggled with the knowledge that a bestselling “memoir” contained as much fiction as fact.

But now it’s getting worse. We are discovering that our fairy tales—the literary bedrock of our civilization—have deceived us.

This revelation emerges from a report out of British Colombia that invalidates the story in which Goldilocks goes to the bears’ house and eats their porridge. We now learn that the real word doesn’t work that way; a woman in West Vancouver returned home recently to discover a bear in HER kitchen eating HER oatmeal.

I feel violated. If the Goldilocks fairy tale duped us, how can we maintain our confidence in the other fables of our youth?

Sleeping Beauty wasn’t in a magical sleep; she was just napping all along.

Cinderella didn’t slide her foot into a glass slipper; she got the handsome prince’s attention through some Fredrick’s of Hollywood get-up.

And how can I still believe that the slow tortoise defeated the speedy hare in that famous race?

Perhaps it’s time to consider exchanging these old fairy tales for some new, more practical ones. Like Little Red Hiding Hood encountering not a wolf, but an online predator. Or the story of the liberal in moderate clothing.

If we don’t consider new fables, we risk that our youth will not learn the right lessons to make their way in today’s world. Maybe outdated fairy tales will threaten our very way of life. Civilization as we know could face extinction.

Or maybe I’m just crying wolf.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

You Can't Account for Style

To professional writers—the ranks of which I have recently entered full-time—words matter. But myriad occupational hazards come with the territory.

For starters, there’s the waxing and waning income. And the omnipresent threat of writer’s block.

Don’t forget the pitchfork-toting gangs of vigilantes hell-bent on murdering unsuspecting freelance writers. (Maybe that last one is just a story I’m working on. Humor me.)

Another hazard for scribblers is the delicate dance required to navigate between style guides. The two biggies are AP Style, which journalists favor, and Chicago Style, which book publishers tend to follow.

These two handbooks agree on most issues. Hyphenate compound nouns. Use ellipses in place of missing words within quotes. Place periods inside quotation marks.

Unfortunately, the manuals differ on a few crucial elements of everyday writing. For example, there’s the use of that pesky comma—specifically, the “serial” comma.

Let me show you what I mean.

This series of David Amulet’s favorite words would be silky smooth with AP types: spleen, wombat, penultimate and kumquat. Windy City stylists, however, are doubled over in agony right now; their indoctrination has instilled in them the need for a comma before that conjunction.

The serial comma disagreement has sparked conflicts between editors that make the Second World War look like a playground scuffle.

I’ll be honest with you: I loves me the serial comma. Perceptive visitors here already know that I prefer using the little swipe of additional ink to make longer sentences easier on readers.

But let’s focus on what matters. As long as the material is good and the meaning is clear, style takes second place … which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from the Washington Post’s Sam Brown:

“Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance.”


Friday, June 16, 2006

The Guts and Glory of a Hurricane Hunter: Redux

The coming and going of Tropical Storm Alberto spurred me to do something unusual. No, not moving to North Dakota to be away from any hurricane dangers. And no, not expanding my business empire into plywood and sandbags.

It instead prompted me to recall my debut essay here, more than a hundred posts back. On a warm day not unlike this one almost a year ago, I put virtual pen to virtual paper for the first time, posting about those quirky hurricane reporters.

Because most (all?) of you have never seen it, it's time for my first "repost," where I will replay the article exactly as it appeared. I'm eager to see your comments on this one ... from when I was so young....

Anyway, enjoy this blast from the past--and feel free, as a result, to chuckle the next time you see Jim Cantore in the path of nature's fury.

Over to you.

Blown Away: The Guts and Glory of A Hurricane Hunter

It’s time again for an annual ritual all too familiar to American TV viewers.

Raise your hand if any of these ring a bell: An otherwise reasonable person leaning into a sand-laced wind topping 60 MPH. A padded black microphone, paired with a not-so-fashionable blue windbreaker. A whirlwind warrior -- a Weather Channel reporter named Jim Cantore.

I see several hands in the audience. Good, we have some hurricane coverage addicts in the house.

For those of you living in a cave, you obviously haven’t been assaulted by the images of Hurricane Dennis battering the Florida panhandle today. (Then again, if you live in a cave, you probably don’t spend a lot of time perusing anything followed by “” anyway.)

But if you are in any way aware of the world around you, you know about the trials and tribulations of the hurricane correspondent. You may have even seen some of the footage of today’s storm. Not exactly must-see TV, I’ll admit ... but you have to salute the constitution, the vocal strength, and the steel-like skin of our nation’s finest weather reporters.

Here’s how I imagine the average cable news network’s office two days before the storm’s projected landfall. Executive #1 holds out straws. Correspondent #3 draws the shortest. Executives #1-4 and Correspondents #1, 2, and 4-10 share guilty glances. Correspondent #3 dons his blue windbreaker and goes to Expedia for one-way tickets to Hurricane Landfall, USA.

And then there’s the Weather Channel. No straws, no guilty glances. Only our brave knight Jim, eager to face the worst maelstrom the Atlantic Gods have to offer.

Compare and contrast.

One is news. Weather, yes … but presented as any other news event. And not too exciting to watch.

The other is spectacle, it’s entertainment. We have office pools on how long it will be until our plucky hero gets clocked by either a tree limb or a pissed-off, less intrepid cameraman who is sick and tired of this shit.

So, as the storm hits, we gasp. We watch our protagonist take shelter briefly behind a shaky wall, or under a twisting tree, as street signs and power lines sail by in the background.

He’s dodging metal sections of a nearby gas station roof. Screaming over the howling wind. Stumbling as the gale roars, nearly hurling him into the newly roofless building.

And we laugh. We can’t help ourselves. This is Jim Cantore’s shining moment, this is what he lives for.

In awe and giddy anticipation we stare at the screen, barely blinking ... silently hoping that we’ll finally see him forced to surf the storm surge. And then we can cheer as our valiant warrior emerges out of the raging-river-that-was-once-a-street, like Luke Skywalker from the trash compactor. Only without lasers and stuff.

Am I making light of the danger? Do I not realize that hurricanes are serious business? Dear reader, I am fully aware that hurricanes kill. In fact, I’ve been through one of these monster storms, and that’s one too many for me. It's not something the average person would want to be caught in, with or without a camera. So I wish one of these horrible storms on NOBODY.

Nobody, that is, except Jim Cantore.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Can You Hear Me Now?

For two days, a single story has grabbed my attention like no other.

Given my global interests, you might think that I’m referring to the emerging details of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s final minutes. Or President Bush’s surprise visit to Iraq to meet with the Iraqi Cabinet and US troops. Maybe the World Cup matches.

You might think these things. But you’d be wrong.

Instead, I find myself fascinated by the story of the cell phone ring that old folks just can’t hear.

They say that aging makes it more difficult—and eventually impossible—for grown-ups to perceive high pitches that schoolchildren have no problem hearing. Teenagers now enjoy setting their phones to an adult-inaudible “ring” for their calls and text messages, a perfect recipe for classroom shenanigans.

This nice trick is an off-shoot from a special tone developed in the UK to scatter teenagers congregating in public places.

Give it up for the kids who found a way to turn it around on The Man.

Perhaps the powers that be are considering additional ring tones to cancel out the following nuisances:

-- Long nails—running down a chalkboard;

-- Cats in heat—doing what cats in heat do;

-- Tropical storm/hurricane hype—panicking everyone in Florida needlessly;

-- The Nanny’s Fran Drescher—opening her mouth for any reason;

-- Children on airplanes—screaming for hours and hours … and hours;

-- Election-year pandering and bluster—repulsing millions of voters;

-- Britney—protesting (too much?) that her marriage is just fine.

There’s only one problem.

I can’t help but feel sorry for all those poor kids, condemned to hear all these irritants for years to come.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Sound of Music

Music plays a big role in my life.

My home stereo and car radio blast my favorite CDs or iTunes playlists virtually around the clock: when I wake up, on my way to work, at work, on the way home, and when I go to sleep.

I have a hard time imagining life without music. And I don’t like what I see when I actually DO imagine it. In the words of Autograph, the “Turn Up the Radio” one-hit wonder: “The only time I turn it down / Is when I’m sleepin' it off.”

But even my near obsession pales in comparison to some the wise-asses in Scotland, who have literally taken their love of song to new heights.

According to USA Today online, authorities last month discovered a nearly intact piano on top of Britain’s tallest peak, Ben Nevis. Best they can tell, some climbers scaled the 4,000-foot peak with the piano and left the unbroken cast iron frame and functioning strings behind.

Mystery solved, if you’re looking for the “easy” answer. But perhaps, just perhaps, the culprits are NOT mountain climbers with a love of the ivories and good exercise.

I have another theory. What if a race of super-beings, some musical geniuses from another planet, use tricks like pianos on mountains to lead us to a new level of auditory consciousness?

Picture the musical version of the mysterious obelisks in the book/film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instruments are so limited in studios, concert halls, and homes … is it so hard to believe that some rockin’ E.T.’s are paving the way to the next big thing in melody and harmony?

I’m starting to convince myself that this theory has some merit.

I think they’ve done this all along. Throughout history, aliens have probably lent helping hands to chosen artists to advance the musical evolution of our species.

I have the facts to back this up, people.

Led Zeppelin, of course, made that trek to the Himalayas, receiving musical revelation from the stars on a wind-swept peak … leading to “Kashmir.”

It’s clear that extraterrestrials descended from the skies to deliver a drum kit to Phil Collins, inspiring his classic tune “In the Air Tonight.”

Naysayers can no longer deny that the Beatles found a hidden alien underwater craft in the Mariana Trench during a side trip from their Japanese tour in the mid-60s. How else could these four Liverpudlians come up with something as ridiculous as “Yellow Submarine?”

And it’s a little known fact that Eddie Van Halen has frequently received aid from The Others.

He found a carefully placed electric guitar atop Italy’s lava-spurting Mt. Etna in the mid-1970s; the other-worldly object prompted him to play the “Eruption” solo on Van Halen I. Not to mention those smokin’ techniques that aliens passed to him during his vacation to Central America’s famous canal zone.

You know, the one in Panama.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Loose Lips Sink Planes

Airline employees do many things to calm passengers’ natural fear of flying.

They provide safety briefings before every flight. Offer movies and radio channels. Hand out pretzels secretly laced with sedatives to lull passengers into semi-consciousness.

That last one is just a theory. Let me know if you have evidence.

Contrast these soothing acts, however, with the phrases that airline representatives should never utter.

Like what I heard last weekend on a trip back into town. A sentence that will live in infamy.

“This is a non-stop flight.”

Maybe I’m in the minority here … but I appreciate it when my flight actually DOES make its scheduled stop. “Direct” flights are great; “non-stop” flights spur thoughts of accidental disappearance from the world as we know it, like Flight 815 on ABC’s Lost.

You would think that of all people, flight attendants would be obsessed with using the proper language. You would think.

Imagine my surprise when—during the same flight—an employee-formerly-known-as-stewardess joked with her colleague about passengers about to get bombed.

I’m alert to clear and present dangers. I pay attention to those homeland security briefings.

So, naturally, I hit the deck and rolled into fetal position, with visions of the Shoe Bomber dancing through my head. I completed three full rolls toward the protection of the nearest galley before realizing the attendants were merely discussing my fellow travelers’ alcoholic consumption.

Thankfully, nobody made any “let’s roll” quips.

We landed safely despite the staff’s poor choice of words. I thanked the pilot for a smooth flight and exited the aircraft calmly and peacefully. But not before grabbing fourteen extra packets of pretzels.

I’ve been sleeping really well this week.